Monday, May 27, 2013

Pawtuckaway

We woke this morning to clear skies. For the first time in a week it wasn't raining. More than four inches of rain fell during the past seven days -- sometimes it rained hard, but mostly it was a slow, steady, cold rain. We needed this rain, despite our daily complaints and wishing that it would end sooner than it did.

Today we celebrated Memorial Day and the return of blue sky, sun, and warmer temperatures with a hike at Pawtuckaway State Park. This is one of our favorite local hikes. From the parking lot at the end of Round Pond Road, we hiked down to Round Pond via a woods road, then Boulder Trail to North Mountain Trail to North Mtn. Bypass back to the Boulder Field, where we retraced our steps back to the car. A nice map of the park is available here. North Mountain at 1,011-feet is the highest point in the 5,500-acre park. The North Mtn -- Boulder Trail loop is about 5.5 miles and meanders past wetlands and giant boulders, climbs up along a huge rock outcrop (where bobcat den in winter), through an oak-hickory woodland along a rocky ridge, and down again. There are many scenic spots along the way.

Round Pond
Painted turtles bask on a log in the wetland above Round Pond
The view atop North Mountain, looking southeast to South Mtn.
Although trillium flowers have faded in the forest understory, pink lady's slippers are in full glory. We saw several along the North Mountain trail today.
Another woodland beauty that was in bloom along the rocky ridge at Pawtuckaway was wild columbine.
The rain has caused fungi to sprout on tree trunks, including these hemlock varnish shelf fungi on a big hemlock tree.
The much needed rain filled vernal pools and wetlands and streams and ponds and soaked into the ground nourishing grass and flowers and vegetables. On our hike, the low spots on the trail were wet and the steeper sections of trail were mildly wet. And yet, I'd venture to say that the upland areas already looked dry. We got a lot of rain this week, but it wasn't enough to last. Later this week when daytime temps reach into the high 80s, we will be wishing for another rainy spell. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Life in a Rock Outcrop

Since February I have been writing a bi-weekly column -- The Spicebush Journal -- for the White Mountain Shopper, a free local newspaper serving central and northern New Hampshire. My blog friend John Compton suggested that I take over his space with my own column as he ended many years of writing his Walking the Whites. You can follow his hiking adventures at http://1happyhiker.blogspot.com.

In my most recent column for the White Mountain Shopper I recounted my recent adventures scrambling around rock outcrops. Here is what I wrote:

During my regular wanderings in woods and wetlands in search of wildlife and to assess their habitats, I bushwhack up slopes, step over fallen trees, and slog through dense underbrush. I listen for bird songs, search muddy trails for mammal tracks, peer into trees with hawk nests, and turn over logs and rocks to find salamanders. In New Hampshire, most every property that I visit has rocky areas to explore. Some are small enough to walk around, others require some scrambling up steep slopes and hiking among large rock outcrops.

I look for crevices in the rocks, places where a porcupine might live. Most people recognize porcupines for their quills – 30,000 in all on their head, back, and tail. Quill encounters are often the result of a curious dog getting too close to a porcupine. The quills are released only on contact, usually around and in a dog’s mouth. With such a great defense against predators, porcupines can afford to be slow. Regrettably this results in many getting killed by vehicles as they waddle with a hunched back slowly across a road at night.

A porcupine shows his large, orange incisors, body of quills, and hunched back
Among rock outcrops and other potential porcupine den sites such as a hollow tree, there are several telltale signs that a porcupine is near. Porcupines are vegetarians, eating needles, twigs, and bark of evergreens in winter, especially hemlock. If the forest floor beneath a hemlock is littered with small hemlock branches than you’ve got a porcupine nearby, perhaps napping up in that very tree. They have four bright orange incisors that are meant for gnawing. This combined with their craving for salt leads them to chew on salty things – axe handles, work gloves, leather boots, shed deer or moose antlers, as well as salt in roadsides. In summer, porcupines eat a more varied diet of fruits, seeds, nuts, leaves, grasses, and flowers.

I recently surveyed a property with expansive rock outcrops that were far from roads and other disturbance. Every crevice in the rock outcrop had been used by a porcupine in the past or was an active den site. I could tell because porcupines use the entrance to their den as a latrine. Openings to porcupine den sites can accumulate quite a large pile of droppings or scat. This makes it easy for the parents to train a newborn, called a pup or a porcupette, since they don’t have to travel far to the outhouse.

The entrance to a porcupine den; note the large pile of droppings
As I scrambled around this particular large rock outcrop, noting all the porcupine activity, a big black bird flew up and away from one large crevice. It was a turkey vulture. The bird surprised me, but as I climbed up to get a closer look I saw two large eggs tucked into a large opening in the rock, nestled on a bed of soft porcupine scat. This was my first ever find of a vulture nest site. Turkey vultures do not build a nest and often lay their eggs in rock outcrops. As I walked away, I watched the pair of vultures soar overhead, waiting for me to leave their nest site before returning to their secluded eggs.

A turkey vulture nest in an old porcupine den;
the two eggs are nestled on a bed of porcupine scat
Turkey vultures have expanded their range into the Northeast in recent years. It is now common to see them soaring, with their wings upturned in a v-shape or dihedral. Their bald head, which is red in adults, is a useful adaptation to a life of eating dead things or carrion. A feathered head would get messy when the vulture sticks its head into a carcass. The turkey vulture is nearly as big as an eagle, so it was quite a sight to see one fly out of the rock outcrop that I was exploring.

Another animal that I look for in large expansive rock outcrops is the bobcat. They too are expanding their range, their population increasing in New Hampshire. Bobcat prey mostly on small mammals  -- snowshoe hare, squirrels, mice and voles – and sometimes birds. They prefer to den in rock crevices. I saw no sign of bobcat on this visit, but winter is a better time to note their presence in rocky places.

At first glance a rock outcrop may seem an unlikely place for wildlife, but a closer look may reveal much more in any season.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Goslings

Every year a pair of Canada Geese nests on the wetland behind our house. The outlet to the wetland flows under a road that is well-traveled, but it is there that the geese and their brood like to hang out. The young poke at insects along the roadside and in the lawn of the small house that abuts the road and the wetland. Most drivers seem to respect this annual event, slowing down, and waiting as necessary, to let the geese move their brood to the side of the road.

Here are a few shots (from my iPhone) of the goose family of nine -- two adults and seven goslings -- taken today.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Trilliums

The woods are rich with bird song of thrushes and vireos and warblers and other migrants. Yesterday afternoon eleven nighthawks flew in graceful circles over the house before flying on. I heard them first -- their call is a distinct nasal peent. I was happy to see so many as there is a concern that nighthawks are declining across their range. Gray tree frogs are breeding and the males are trilling loud and clear in our yard. At least three were belting out competing trills in the evening and into the night. With the window open it was quite a chorus during the night, with tree frogs, spring peepers, and barred owls calling. They must all like the rain and the warm nights.

Trilliums have caught my eye recently. I spent last weekend in Vermont near Lake Champlain with my sister's family. We climbed the 1,200-foot Snake Mountain in Addison, which provides a fabulous view of the Lake Champlain Valley and the Adirondack Mountains beyond.

The view, looking west, from atop Snake Mountain
The approximately 3.5 mile hike takes 2 to 3 hours and passes through a beautiful hardwood forest of oaks, sugar maple, hickories and hop hornbeam. The forest floor was covered in wildflowers and on the day we hiked white trilliums were in full bloom.

White or large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
The white flowers turn pink as they fade, so it was nearing the end of the flowering season for these trillium. Trilliums are easy to identify as a group, with leaves in a single whorl of three, each with a single three-petaled flower and they grow in cool, rich woods. The large-flowered trillium and its relative the red trillium (or wake-robin) have flowers borne on an erect stalk, or one nearly so, and the leaves have no distinct stalk.

Red trillium (T. erectum)
I am familiar with two other trilliums in our region. The beautifully named and colorful painted trillium, with its white petals and crimson-colored blaze at the base of each petal. The leaves of painted trilliums have short stalks.

Painted trillium (T. undulatum)
The nodding trillium has a flower that dangles below the whorl of leaves. Its petals are recurved. The six stamens have purplish tips (anthers).

Nodding trillium (T. cernuum)
The trilliums are a beautiful group of spring wildflowers. We are fortunate to have them in our region.

Monday, May 13, 2013

New Birds and Spring Wildflowers

The first two weeks of May have been stunningly beautiful. It is the time of year that reaffirms why I love New England. The forests are lush and new birds arrive daily from their wintering grounds farther south. The snap peas are starting to climb the pea fence and the potatoes have sprouted. We got a much needed good rain the end of last week. The black flies were gaining strength but just today we entered a mini cold snap with a breeze and cool temperatures. It is a little chilly, but it keeps the black flies away.

A pileated woodpecker is working some of the big decaying trees in our neighborhood and up Bald Hill Road. We see it during our morning walk. There is one particular tree that it visits to hammer a section of hollow trunk, creating a deep resonating sound that alerts all to its territorial claim. Songbirds were slow to arrive back but seem to be picking up some steam now. I saw my first scarlet tanager of the year today in a red oak at the edge of a woods road. Bobolinks are back to the fields where they nest. Great crested flycatchers have returned. I heard their loud, slightly raspy, wheeep, in the woods today.

The gusty wind today made it hard to hear birds. I was surveying a property in southern Maine, documenting wildlife presence and mapping habitats. After watching a handful of male bobolinks flutter in a hayfield, I moved into the woods where I was protected from the wind. As I stepped over fresh moose scat and deer scat, I kept my eyes mostly on the ground, for there were many beautiful wildflowers to admire. I had to pause to take their photograph, if just as a reminder how fortunate I was to be spending the day in fields and forests and low wet areas, enjoying whatever I stumbled upon.

American fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis)
Fringed polygala (Polygala paucifolia)
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)
Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolium)
Red trillium (Trillium erectum)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Springing into Action

Things are finally springing into action around here. For much of April it was cold and windy, feeling more like late winter than spring. Now, in early May, leaf buds are unfurling, tulips and dandelions are blooming in the yard, the sugar snap peas are two inches tall, pairs of phoebes and robins are busy with their nests, and potatoes are planted. This week I sifted the material in the compost bin, adding some to each garden row. The drip hoses are laid out. We are ready for the long days of summer.

But no need to rush. This is a time to enjoy some of the most beautiful few weeks of the year in New England - before full leaf-out and before black flies emerge en masse. Each morning we listen for the new spring arrivals of songbirds to our neighborhood. This week we heard the flute-like ee-oh-lay of the wood thrush that returned to the woodland on Bald Hill Road and black-throated green warblers are singing their buzzy zoo-zee, zoo-zoo-zee from the mixed woods of oak and pine. I saw my first dragonfly of the year early in the week, but it buzzed by too fast to identify.

Some spotted salamander eggs have hatched; they look like tadpoles when small.
Clusters of unfurling fern fiddleheads resemble crowds of earth-bound aliens.
The forest floor is dotted with early wildflowers, known as spring ephemerals because they bloom early and whither quickly. Look for red trillium, trout lily, and spring beauty among other spring ephemerals in early May before the weather turns too warm.

On my woodland wanderings I'm hearing the low-pitched snore
of the pickerel frog from shrubby shores of wetlands. 
Time just zipped by lately. That happens when the weather is beautiful -- warm and sunny. The two peach trees in our front yard are loaded with pink flowers. I'm thankful we did not get the big snows that fell in the Midwest this week. While walking a property in southern Maine I saw an unusually tall (over my head) hobblebush in full bloom. It was hosting a dozen beetles and bees -- insects happy to find some nectar among the mostly bare trees in the forest.